The NFL’s final four teams are set, and they offer a kaleidoscopic array of offensive stars. The Kansas City Chiefs, who will host the Tennessee Titans in next Sunday’s AFC championship game, boast incandescent quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the 2018 NFL MVP and one of the sport’s most exciting players. Mahomes threw five touchdown passes in a divisional-round win over the Houston Texans, leading the Chiefs to a 51-point explosion that has them favored to advance to the Super Bowl.
The Titans will counter with Derrick Henry, one of the NFL’s most effective running backs, who has bowled over the defending champion New England Patriots and presumptive NFL MVP Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens in consecutive games. Henry has gained more yards on the ground through his first four playoff games than any other back in NFL history. But Tennessee was the AFC’s sixth seed, and no No. 6 seed has made the Super Bowl since the Green Bay Packers nine years ago.
[Four big lessons NFL teams can learn from this year’s conference finalists]
That was the only Super Bowl appearance for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a two-time NFL MVP who is one of the best passers of his era. Rodgers has the Packers, seeded second in the NFC, on the verge of another Super Bowl appearance after a dominant home win over the Seattle Seahawks, and a second title would burnish one of the best quarterback résumés of all time.
In the way are the NFC’s top-seeded San Francisco 49ers, led by Coach Kyle Shanahan and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers have the NFL’s second-ranked rushing attack, and they romped over the visiting Packers in November.
The winners of the conference title games will meet in the Super Bowl next month.
Who will play in the conference championship games?
AFC championship game: No. 6 Tennessee Titans at No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs
Sunday, 3:05 p.m. (CBS)
Kansas City will host the Tennessee Titans in a surprising matchup. The Chiefs needed the postseason’s most explosive performance to get to this point, rallying to beat the Houston Texans, 51-31, in the divisional round after falling behind 24-0. That game featured the most first-half points in postseason history, and Kansas City became the first team to score 30 points in these playoffs — before the third quarter had ended.
The Titans advanced to the AFC title game after two shocking road upsets, beating the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and then the Baltimore Ravens, who had the NFL’s best record in the regular season. Tennessee has relied on brilliant running back Derrick Henry, who has 377 rushing yards in the two playoff wins and more rushing yards through his first four playoff games than any other back in NFL history. The Titans are trying to become the first No. 6 seed in the Super Bowl since Green Bay after the 2010 season.
[Derrick Henry and the Titans are bucking analytical wisdom, because Derrick Henry is a freak]
Tennessee hosted Kansas City in a mid-November barnburner, with the Titans scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the last minute of a 35-32 win. The Chiefs had a potential tying field goal blocked on the final play. Kansas City has won seven straight since that loss, and the Titans have won six of eight.
The Titans haven’t been to the Super Bowl since the 1999 season, while the star-crossed Chiefs, who will host the AFC title game for the second year in a row, haven’t been to the Super Bowl since the 1969 season.
NFC championship game: No. 2 Green Bay Packers at No. 1 San Francisco 49ers
Sunday, 6:40 p.m. (Fox)
One of the NFC’s greatest rivalries will be renewed Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif., although the faces will largely be new. Packers Coach Matt LaFleur is in his first season as a head coach, and like San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan, he is just 40 years old. San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had never started a playoff game before Saturday’s convincing win over the Minnesota Vikings, and his biggest offensive weapons (George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman) are 27 or younger.
But Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers brings plenty of history by himself. The two-time NFL MVP hasn’t been to the Super Bowl in nearly a decade, and while he has adapted to a less adventurous offensive approach this season, he remains Green Bay’s leader.
[A year ago, the Packers appeared to be outdated. Now they look like a modern NFL prototype.]
The teams met in November, and host San Francisco earned a dominant 37-8 win, with Rodgers turning in one of the least impressive performances of his career. If they can repeat that performance, the 49ers will be heading to the Super Bowl.
When is the Super Bowl?
Super Bowl LIV is Sunday, Feb. 2, in Miami Gardens, Fla. It starts at 6:30 p.m. and will be broadcast by Fox.
What happened in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs?
NFC divisional: No. 1 San Francisco 49ers 27, No. 6 Minnesota Vikings 10
The 49ers’ defense dominated the Vikings as San Francisco earned the right to play for a conference championship for the first time since the 2013 season.
San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 131 yards, a touchdown and an interception on 11-for-19 passing. Tevin Coleman ran for 105 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries.
AFC divisional: No. 6 Tennessee Titans 28, No. 1 Baltimore Ravens 12
The great expectations that the Baltimore Ravens created with their brilliant regular season, led by the breathtaking exploits of Lamar Jackson, were dashed with a dud of a performance on a warm and windy night at M&T Bank Stadium.
They made a quick and highly disappointing exit from the postseason. Their blunders on offense kept handing points to the Tennessee Titans. The stunning result was that the Ravens’ dream season ended with a nightmarish loss.
AFC divisional: No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs 51, No. 4 Houston Texans 31
After the Chiefs fell behind by 24 points early in the second quarter, dredging the torment of the franchise’s playoff past, they scored 41 consecutive points. The Chiefs eventually finalized the score at 51-31, riding Patrick Mahomes’s five touchdown passes — three of them to tight end Travis Kelce — and 321 passing yards to a frenzied comeback that became a blowout that looked something like art.
NFC divisional: No. 2 Green Bay Packers 28, No. 5 Seattle Seahawks 23
The Packers believe this year can be different, and they displayed why with a diverse, dangerous offense. They leaned on a balanced approach with Aaron Rodgers under center and Aaron Jones out of the backfield. They found their best playmaker, wide receiver Davante Adams, again and again while mixing in unexpected twists such as reverse pitches or a quarterback sneak. And they barred superstar pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney from wrecking the game with creative protection schemes.
[The Seahawks and Packers have an unforgettable playoff history. Just ask Matt Hasselbeck.]
What happened in the first round?
NFC first round: No. 5 Seattle Seahawks 17, No. 4 Philadelphia Eagles 9
Carson Wentz’s NFL playoff debut was cut short at Lincoln Financial Field when he suffered a first-quarter head injury. The Eagles made things interesting but exited the postseason quickly with a loss to the Seahawks.
NFC first round: No. 6 Minnesota Vikings 26, No. 3 New Orleans Saints 20 (OT)
After a roller-coaster four quarters failed to decide whose season ended and whose continued, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins floated a pass to the corner of the end zone. When it landed in the hands of tight end Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings had completed a stunning 26-20 upset of the Saints, who again took their Super Bowl-worthy roster into an early offseason.
AFC first round: No. 4 Houston Texans 22, No. 5 Buffalo Bills 19 (OT)
The Texans seemed headed toward another unceremonious playoff exit. Then J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins intervened. They led a furious comeback as the Texans beat the Bills in overtime in Houston.
AFC first round: No. 6 Tennessee Titans 20, No. 3 New England Patriots 13
A team quarterbacked by Ryan Tannehill beat Tom Brady’s Patriots in the playoffs in Foxborough, Mass. It was a shocking loss for the Patriots, and it ended a season that started with so much promise behind a historically good defense.
The Titans rode the NFL rushing champion, Derrick Henry, to the win. His 182 yards on the ground were the most in the playoffs since Ryan Grant had 201 for the Green Bay Packers in 2008.
The fatal flaw that could stop each NFL playoff team from reaching the Super Bowl
The most and least likely Super Bowl matchups
How overtime rules work in the playoffs
Tony Romo can see the future. His own is dotted with enormous paychecks.
How the new pass interference instant replay rule works
The NFL is fine with its postseason format, even though fans think it’s unfair